Pigeons


Pigeons have always liked the spot outside of the kitchen window. The net tied across the air shaft running down the height of the building keeps them out for a while, but they pick their way through eventually. About six years ago another pair of birds successfully fledged two chicks, in a nest made out of their own shit, after which all of them took off and flew away forever.

I am elated to find the new nest, made of switches and twigs.

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Six crooked ladders stood against the front of the shanty where Hatrack the Horse lived. Yellow roses all on fire were climbing up and down the ladders, up and down and crossways. And leaning out on both sides from the crooked ladders were vines of yellow roses, leaning, curving, nearly falling. Hatrack the Horse was waiting. This was the morning Wiffle the Chick was coming.

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There are two eggs again. But there's only one bird keeping them warm.

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"Sit here on the cracker box and listen,” he said to her when she came; “listen and you will hear the roses saying, ‘This is climbing time for all yellow roses and climbing time is the time to climb; how did we ever learn to climb only by climbing? Listen and you will hear—st. . th. .st. .th . . st. . th. .it is the feet of the yellow roses climbing up and down and leaning out and curving and nearly falling . st. . th. . st. . th. .”

So Wiffle the the Chick sat there, early in the summer, enjoying herself, sitting on a cracker box, listening to the yellow roses climb around the six crooked ladders.

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I believe it is the mother. They hatch and she is with them. One loved obviously more than the other, but that's understandable. These are dinosaurs. They are still cold-blooded. She bends her neck to meet her chick's beak, adoring. I name the hatchlings Andrew Coonanan and Yonah Hill. I don't mean for it to be a bad omen. I don't want there to be blood.

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Hatrack the Horse came out. On his shoulders were two pigeons, on his hands two pigeons. And he reached his hand around behind his back where his hat was hanging and he opened the hat and showed Wiffle the Chick two pigeons in the hat. “They are lovely pigeons to look at and their eyes are full of lessons to learn.

"Maybe you will tell me why you have their feet wrapped in bandages, hospital liniment bandages full of hospital liniment smells?"

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On the morning I see them by themselves, I take a picture. I share it on the internet. They have grown so fast I note. People have been following their progress. Most have not seen baby pigeons before. Growing up in the city, you may never see them. There are myths pigeons don't even lay eggs. For me it's a chance to be a naturalist, to observe life, to watch how it takes shape, to study behavior at a time when behavior seems to matter so much.

Someone posts after I share my picture: "The β-keratins in feathers, beaks and claws—and the claws, scales and shells of reptiles—are composed of protein strands hydrogen-bonded into β-pleated sheets, which are then further twisted and crosslinked by disulfide bridges into structures even tougher than α-keratins." A quote from Wikipedia.

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Why do you put soft mittens on the feet of these pigeons so lovely to look at? They came back yesterday, they came back home. They came back limping on their feet with the toes turned in so far they nearly turned backward. When they put their bleeding feet in my hands one by one each one, it was like each one was writing his name in my hand with red ink.

Did you know they were coming?

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Later that afternoon, I only see one chick in the nest. The other, or what is left of it, lying on its side nearby.

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Didn’t you tie the mittens on her feet extra special nice? Yes—she is an extra special nice pigeon. She cries for pity when she wants pity. And she shuts her eyes when she doesn’t want to look.

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There are other birds in the nest. The mother has brought home new suitors. I don't know which one, if any of them, is the infanticidal male, trying to clear out the nest to take over, but I'm sure that is what happened.

One of them, gawky-looking and greasy, lands near the body (I think it is Andrew Coonanan's, but I can't be sure. So much of identifying them was by comparison). The bird seems to inspect the body, not peck it, I hope. It moves towards the nest. The remaining chick is screeching now. "It's terrified," I say out loud. I am terrified, I realize. The bird tries sitting on the chick. To care for it.

The chick is still there on the next day. With the adults all gone, I push the other body off the ledge with a stick.

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A week ago yesterday they all went away. And they won’t tell why they went away. Somebody clipped their wings, cut off their flying feathers so they couldn’t fly—and they won’t tell why.

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Things seem better. One suitor settles in with the mother and chases off the others. The remaining chick does well. It's being fed and growing. One morning I see it outside of the nest for the first time, standing at the end of the ledge. I tell it to go back. "Go back!" I yell at it. "You're too close to the edge!"

In the afternoon, when I check again, there is no chick there anymore.

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The old man and the girl sat on the cracker box saying nothing, only listening to the yellow roses all on fire with early summer climbing up the crooked ladders, up and down and crossways, some of them leaning out and curving and nearly falling.

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When I look today, I only see an egg.

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[Read the introduction post to the Public Domain Class of 1923 here. This post contains sections from "How Six Pigeons Came Back to Hatrack the Horse After Many Accidents and Six Telegrams" from Carl Sandburg's modern fairy-tales, Rootabaga Pigeons.

Top image and "Pigeons" by Anthony Michael Morena are CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.]

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